The perfect rock'n'roll storm

 

ROCK:A new biography charts the rise and fall of rock band Led Zeppelin through in-depth interviews with those closest to them

Trampled Under Foot: The Power and Excess of Led Zeppelin By Barney Hoskyns, Faber and Faber, 571pp. £20

LED ZEPPELIN have left us a hatful of earth-shakingly great albums, and their story has inspired some suitably riotous biographies, from Stephen Davis’s Hammer of the Gods (1985) to Mick Wall’s When Giants Walked the Earth (2009). When a new Zep book is laid out on the table, it feels like being offered another line of some class-A substance, when you’re already burnt out from the tales of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll. But you’re not gonna say no to another ride on the rollercoaster, now, are you?

In When Giants Walked the Earth, Wall tried to get inside the heads of Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, John Bonham and John Paul Jones. In Trampled Under Foot, rock writer Barney Hoskyns lets the people in and around Zep do the talking, creating an oral history of the band by the people who survived this almost perfect rock’n’roll storm. This method gives a good peripheral view of the band, and a few new insights. These “chronological conversations” get right down to the details, and allow the speakers to offer their own, sometimes unflattering, opinions.

The band’s excesses are well documented, from the mudshark incident to the occult dabblings, but hearing it from those who witnessed it all first-hand cuts through the rock-god mystique and brings it all to a very human, personal level. There’s nothing godlike about the monstrous behaviour of drummer John Bonham or the puerile horn-locking of Page and Plant, each wanting control of the band’s destiny.

As the founder, overlord and self-appointed curator of the Zep legacy, Page is particularly paranoid about maintaining the band’s mystique even to this day. He wouldn’t be happy with anything that might undermine the mythology, which might explain why he refused to give Hoskyns’s book his blessing.

There are lots of quotes from the three surviving members, Page, Plant and Jones, taken from interviews conducted with the author in 2003. Also, other rock writers have shared their interview notes with Hoskyns, allowing him to build up a timeline stretching from Page’s puberty, when he was already the hottest guitarist on the block, to Plant’s latterday resurgence as the Grammy-winning eminence gris of country, blues, folk and what-have-you.

But the real meat of the matter is in the exhaustive interviews Hoskyns conducts with the people around the band: the tour managers, roadies, record label execs, lawyers, wives, girlfriends, groupies, drinking buddies and musical contemporaries. They watched from the wings as Zep conquered the world, laid waste to rival bands and cast dark spells over all and sundry. Not for nothing have they been called the rock’n’roll equivalent of marauding Vikings.

The story begins with 12-year-old Jimmy Page growing up in Epsom (just a stone’s throw away from two other young guitar prodigies, Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck), playing in skiffle groups, and gaining enough of a reputation to be offered work as a session guitarist. “Maybe there was something in the water, I don’t know,” says Glyn Johns, who was the engineer on Led Zeppelin’s debut album. “It was strange, the three best British rock guitarists, Clapton, Beck and Page, all coming out of this one little area.”

As a session player, Page laid down guitar lines on records by Lulu, Them, Val Doonican and The Kinks (he fumed when Dave Davies wouldn’t let him do the guitar part for All Day and All of the Night). He often teamed up with another young sessioneer, John Baldwin, who changed his name to John Paul Jones at the suggestion of Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham.

Meanwhile, in Birmingham, Robert Plant and John Bonham were playing the “Ma Regan circuit” in various blues-influenced bands. While they struggled to make ends meet, Page was earning top dollar as a session man, and getting his first taste of rock stardom as a member of The Yardbirds, with Jeff Beck. When the band broke up, Page was left with the name and a tour commitment to fulfil. He also had a canny manager, Peter Grant, who would steer Page’s new band to superstardom (the larger-than-life Grant really warrants a separate biography). Page recruited his session buddy John Paul Jones and, at the suggestion of singer Terry Reid, went “oop north” to check out Band of Joy, which featured Plant and Bonham. Soon The New Yardbirds had become Led Zeppelin, and a new chapter in rock history was opening.

From the off, the fans – particularly teenage boys – were in thrall to the new young gods of rock. Zep were hard, heavy and oozed sexual energy. “It was driven by testosterone,” recalls rock chick Bebe Buell, who was Page’s girlfriend during the band’s most flagrantly excessive period in the mid-1970s. “I don’t know if the music was designed to give boys power and sexual prowess, but I do know that when boys listened to it they would become extremely cocky and full of themselves.”

“Zeppelin was like a freight train on steroids, a huge machine coming at you. And it had a lot of funk to it. I went, ‘holy fuck!’,” recalls Chicago blues guitarist Joe “Jammer” Wright, who became the band’s roadie.

Would-be rock critics, take heed: the music press of the time was laughably wide of the mark when writing about the new Fab Four. While Zep were blowing headline acts off the stage with their awesome power and musicianship and topping the album charts without even bothering to release singles, rock journalists refused to acknowledge that they were anything more than a hyped-up act, and were seemingly deaf to the evident brilliance of Good Times, Bad Times, Dazed and Confused, Whole Lotta Love and Heartbreaker.

Another listener wasn’t too thrilled, either. Willie Dixon, who had written You Shook Me and You Need Love (which became Whole Lotta Love), was one of several blues giants left unimpressed when Page and Plant’s name replaced theirs in the songwriting credits.

As the juggernaut rolls on through the 1970s, we follow Zep as they “get it together” in the country for their bucolic third album, then blow away every last vestige of resistance with their mighty fourth, known as the “four symbols” album, which featured the bands albatross-to-be, Stairway to Heaven.

From that moment on, the world was theirs, but as they swanned around in their private jet and indulged in vanity projects – such as the Swan Song record label and the self-indulgent concert movie The Song Remains the Same – there’s a definite sense of a band flying too close to the sun, and setting themselves up for a spectacular fall.

By the second half of the decade, Page had gone over to the dark side, and Bonham had become a nasty, drunken piece of work, assaulting women and starting fist-fights at the drop of a pint glass. Plant, bored with Page’s ever-lengthening onstage guitar solos, would regularly leave the stage to get a blow job. The final two albums, Presence and In Through the Out Door, are disappointing, directionless efforts from a band in disarray. Inevitably, Zep were written off as dinosaurs by a new generation of hipsters. They were seen as the antithesis of punk – even though they were all fans of The Damned, and Communication Breakdown was hailed as an MC5-type proto-punk classic.

Human tragedy ended it all – the death of Plant’s son Karac sapped his mojo, and he felt betrayed when neither Page nor Jones attended the funeral. John Bonham’s death finished Zep, but the band is still living a healthy afterlife, from the Page/Plant No Quarter project in the 1990s to the reunion gig at London’s O2 arena in 2007 in honour of the late Ahmet Ertegun, the head of Atlantic Records and the man who signed Zep. They still sell truckloads of records every year and have become one of a handful of “cross-generational” bands, retaining their dad-rocker fans but also appealing to their kids and grandkids.

Jack White of The White Stripes, who featured in the documentary film It Might Get Loud with Page and U2’s The Edge, is one young gun who wears his Zep influences proudly. “Songwriting-wise, I was coming from the same places that Jimmy and Robert were: Robert Johnson, Tommy Johnson, Blind Willie McTell. We were feeding from the same trough,” says White.

The trough has long been drained, but the great music still remains, along with a backstory that is the essence of rock’n’roll. As Hoskyns says, it’s “light and shade”. But still the clamour for one more ascent of the stairway can be heard. Plant has resisted all offers to sign up for a Zep reunion tour (estimates of up to $300 million have been bandied about), preferring to produce more dignified work such as his Grammy award-winning album with Alison Krauss, Raising Sand, and his 21st-century incarnation of his Band of Joy. Being in Zep was, says Plant, a “young man’s job”.

“I don’t want to scream Immigrant Song every night for the rest of my life, and I’m not sure I could.”

Out of respect for Zep’s legacy, I think we should let sleeping dinosaurs lie.


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